07 September 2010

Review: The Crimson Throne

Author: Sudhir Kakar
Publishers: Penguin
Published in: 2010

Sudhir Kakar's semi-fictional period novel, The Crimson Throne takes a fascinating event in Mughal history, and intimately looks at it from the perspective of two foreign narrators - the italian Niccolao Manucci and Frenchman Francois Bernier - both of whom were real-life figures who were in fact part of this mid-17 century Moghal setting. The event in question is the war of succession between Shah Jahan's two sons - the liberal minded, Sufi-inspired Dara Shukoh and the fanatical Aurangzeb. Dara was the clear favourite of his father and everyone expects him to be the heir apparent. However, various elements conspire against him, and as one knows it was Aurangzeb who ultimately became Emperor.

The entire novel is divided between the observations made by the two foreigners, and as a reader, you share their sense of wonderment, amusement and outrage at different points. This is a time when India was divided into different kingdoms, and the Mughals were absolutely at the pinnacle of their reign. The threat of British invasion was a far-fetched thought and most foreigners viewed India as a distant, exotic land where there was plenty to see and experience. Among the two, Manucci is intrigued by the tales he hears of India and makes the journey from Venice to Goa. He hears that European healers are privileged over the local hakims in Moghal courts and is eager to learn the secrets to some rare potions. By sheer luck and good graces - as he admits himself - Manucci is able to entrench himself in the Dara Shukoh camp. He narrates with passion and poignancy his visits to the harems, where beautiful women (the concubines of the Moghal nobels) are a frustrated bunch with little or no sex (because there are so many in number!). Eunachs are used to guard the harems and very harsh punishments are heaped on women involved in any sexual misconduct. Manucci - being a healer- is one of the rarest of rare men allowed entry into the harem. He describes how he would often feel a soft kiss planted on his palms, as he went to check the pulse of an unwell woman from behind a veil.

Bernier is a scholar, and perhaps more rigid. He is distant and slightly contemptuous in his descriptions of Indians. But he gets close to Shah Jahan's foreign minister Danishmand Khan, the man who proves decisive in the end.
For most part of the book, it is impossible to see the two narrators as separate voices. Their distinct personalities don't emerge until much, much later, but thankfully, the central story does not suffer because ultimately the subject is focussed on the Moghals. From the ostentatious lifestyle led by the Moghal nobels (some rubbed the precious rose water on their horses everyday, the footwear of the nobels were studded with gems and precious stones, the most obscenely lavish parties were thrown and there was no limit to the number of women that the Omrah's kept adding to their harem) to the Hindu-Islam divide, there is much that is observed and astutely noted down by the two narrators. The Hindus were called idolators, and they were considered inferior in status to the Muslims. A Muslim of the lowest rank would not fathom getting his daughters married even to a high-class Hindu. On the other hand, there were several instances of Rajput kings giving away their daughters to Moghal kings - one is instantly reminded of the Jodha- Akbar situation.

It is only when Shah Jahan's health starts deteriorating and murmurs for a new heir begin that the narrative voices start to take on divergent paths. Manucci brings out the various qualities of Dara Shukoh, and the fact that he came closest to his grandfather Akbar in his religious tolerance and aesthetic liberality. On the other hand, Bernier takes a slightly opposing position and points out how Dara was an extremely irascible and tactless person, and was unpopular among those who thought Islamism would come under threat if he took over the reigns. Also, Bernier describes how Dara was an extremely superstitious person, and would not move a finger without his astrologers guiding him. Similarly, you get a twin perspective of Aurangazeb. Manucci sees Aurangazeb as a cruel dictator and religious fanatic, who uprooted every hurdle in his path without the least compunction.

Bernier, on the other hand, prefers to look at Aurangzeb's stead-fastness and ability not to get ruffled easily. Also, his ambition as we see, is less for self-aggrandisement and more because he’s a staunch upholder of Islam.
The writing style is lucid, and the ornate sentences go well with the mood and setting of the novel.  Sudhir Kakar's novel essentially proves useful in seeing from close quarters a significant time in Moghal history and how its course radically changed. The Crimson Throne is studded with several period details, and for that reason and more, is an engaging read.

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